Steps in the Carceral

The philosopher of protoscience Hémel Benedek once wrote that ‘The essence of nature can be found in two forms: the savage Destroyers and the noble Protectors.’ In two regards he was correct but, more importantly, he was wrong in another. There are Destroyers enacting eternal siege on all they touch, and Protectors that wage war against them. But Benedek fails to see the full painting. There are the beautiful, the pure, the holy. The Glorious, creatures of higher design that are rarer than the finest of diamonds.

Oh we Protectors who, bound by love and nature, devout ourselves to the justice of war against the Destroyers for the Glorious.

This catechism rang in my ears as I walked through the cell blocks of Semson Penitentiary, truncheon in hand and faith in my heart. The prisoners would shout out insults and taunts as I passed. These didn’t bother me, but the few prisoners who huddled silently in the corner of their cells and shiver endlessly certainly did. I knew that under their breaths they were concocting evil plans to tear down all civilised society. That’s why they would push themselves further into the corner of the cell when I got closer, as if they were able to phase into the wall and get away from me. How pathetic they were as they shivered, these murderers, rapists and terrorists turned into cowards by my presence.

Outside the prison they inevitably returned to their old ways, joining the ever-growing siege on our society. Like rats they scurry into their dens of degradations and become hidden enemies weakening us from within. And then there is the enemy who never hides but are not seen for what they are. Us in the prison and those in the police stations know who they are though. We are the ones at the front of the war and will be the first to be harmed should they win. Except not all my colleagues can see this. Some, a few really, stammer and make awkward excuses when we talk about the siege, or they simply ignore it and pretend nothing was said, they act blind to it. But I know they’ll see soon. How can you not walk through the city and see the siege all around us. Violence, sickness, degeneracy, they all signal societal collapse. Soon all the Protectors will see the Destroyers for what they are, and the war will come to a head.

But what of the Glorious? Benedek didn’t know of them. In fact, he never wrote of beauty, preoccupied as he was with societal warfare and his narrow conceptions. For a while this was enough to satiate my intellectual hunger. And then I met it, the most beautiful animal possible. I had gone out for a night of drinking to a local pub with some other prison officers.

The wood panel walls and chattering crowds closed in on me. In my head I was counting the minutes since I last said anything, streams of conversation flowed around me and I was too weak to step in. Paulson-Whitman and Boschwitz were muttering to each other about their affairs, unaware, or perhaps uncaring, that everyone else could hear them and were learning of the duo’s proclivities to leather and musk respectively. Then there was Keyes, Armfield and Moore laughing and talking about a constantly changing string of subjects, jumping from the new (much too soft) prison warden to the surprise death in this week’s episode of By the Shore to the latest news in the trade union pension talks, all while Avonasac drunkenly flirted with a twink in a turtleneck.

I sat in silence.

I was thinking up a plan to make my excuses and leave when I saw it, the Gorgeous. Golden hair and spotless skin, it hit me like a lightning bolt and shook up my world. In fact, I think I nearly got a nosebleed. It was just standing aimlessly in the middle of the pub, no one seemed to notice it. Who let this creature, this animal into the pub? There was only one thing to do. I staggered over to it and warmly smiled, being careful not to upset it. Scaring an animal like this, as beautiful as it may be, would only spark chaos in the packed pub. It smiled back at me and bent its head to the side in what I took to be a friendly gesture. I sputtered out something about how busy the pub was and it nodded in agreement. From there the flow of conversation was easier, even when I noticed some of my colleagues looking over and laughing among themselves. But it didn’t matter what they thought, I was the one with the Gorgeous, only a Protector like me was worthy. The rest were all threats.

I talked endlessly about this and that, and they made the cutest sounds. Unintelligible of course. Drinks flowed endlessly until my voice was slurred and head fuzzy. The Gorgeous could hold its drink surprisingly well, but after a dangerous number of tequila shots its swaying became too obvious to ignore. It couldn’t be left here alone with the menacing crowd that was certainly infested with Destroyers, and letting it walk back to its enclosure alone was just as bad. As we left I waved to my colleagues and Paulson-Whitman shouted something back but was drowned out by the noise of the crowd.

It was such a precious thing as it held on to me and made its cute little noises. How blind it was to the dangers of the night and how proud I was to be the one to keep it safe. Over cobbled streets we stumbled until we got to the doorway of my flat. The Gorgeous squinted in confusion, but it should have known that we were coming back to my flat. It was probably closer to the pub than its place and I really didn’t want to leave it alone, it still needed protecting. As we walked in it made noises of protestation. Screeching, piercing nagging that incessantly tugged on my ears. After I explained that this really was better than walking all the way back to its enclosure it quietened a bit, it really was better for it to stay at mine, for tonight at the very least.

In it came, stumbling about the place. My flat was small, ‘cosy’ as the real estate agent called it, and so it created a fair bit of a mess barging through the flat with its lack of grace. It was still beautiful, a delicate creature demanding careful handling.

Patiently I guided it to a spare room, previously occupied by a housemate who had to leave after an incident. She had even left her bed behind and never bothered to come back for it, or the rest of the stuff that hadn’t been taken. Hopefully she was doing better wherever she had gone.

That night I vividly dreamt that the soft skin of the Gorgeous was wrapped around me, cocooning me in a heaven made only for me. Then it unwrapped itself and showed me the true world, with its demons and degenerates wielding clubs and advancing on us. Its voice like silk in my head announced me as its duly appointed knight and sent me forth. From there it was a blur of steel and blood, explosions of pleasure inside me for each Destroyer felled, but their numbers were countless and they spilled in from every direction.

And then there was a knock, then another, then numerous more, each louder than the last.

Sunlight streamed into my eyes and suddenly I was awake. I was in my room again with its leaning towers of books and its piles of cargo pants, t-shirts and jumpers, most of which were camo or some variation of earthy beige or green. My uniform was hanging by the door, at least I had the sense to get it ready before heading out to drink. I could still hear the knocking now, more persistent with each second. After a few minutes I couldn’t ignore it anymore.

“Morning Amelia, I need some coffee in me.” It was Paulson-Whitman.

He pushed past me and straight into the kitchen to raid the cupboards. By the time I got back to the kitchen he already had a kettle on the boil. How was he so lively? He’d drank as much as me, right?

“How’re you doing Paulson-Whitman? Get back home ok?”

He looks up at me and pulls a fake frown.

“For the 100th time, you can just call me Bob when there aren’t any prisoners around. I hate when you call me that. Tell you what, I’m gonna get it changed soon.”

Paulson-Whitman won’t. He’s already told me at least 50 times since we started working together that he’s going to get his last name changed one day. In fact, it was the first thing he said to me.

The kettle finished its boil with a final screaming serenade. Quickly, he spooned a generous amount of coffee beans into a mug and poured in the steaming water. He asked if I minded him having some milk but before I could answer he poured some in. Then, to finish the display off, he made a cacophony of noise through the simple action of stirring.

“Love stirring. I could stir all day.”

I simply grunted and left to brush my teeth. I could hear him sipping away, humming to himself, no doubt he’ll have been judging my choice of furniture.

Why is he here?

The question latched onto my brain and infected every thought. The foam built up in my mouth while I brushed and I stared back at myself in the mirror, working the puzzle out.

Maybe I forgot something at the pub, or he has important news that couldn’t wait until our next shift. But then why wouldn’t he have said something already?

By the time I’ve finished and gone back in he had nearly finished his coffee and had an even bigger smile on his face. A cocky, dipshit smile.

“So, had fun last night?”

“I suppose, the drinks certainly made it better.” I said.

“Come on Amelia, don’t be coy. You pulled! It can’t have been that bad right?”

And then I remember it all. The shots at the pub, stumbling through the shadows in the streets, coming through door, but not alone. Finally I remembered it, bound here by a heavy hangover and the locked door. It must’ve still been asleep.

“Nothing happened. We split ways and I came back alone.”

He didn’t believe me, he grinned and winked in a way that makes me want to rip his eyeballs out. Then he made an innuendo, crass and unnecessary of course, and chuckled deeply. But in a flash his winking and his chuckling and his innuendoes stopped, and he checked his watch.

“We gotta get going or else we’ll be late, you gonna get ready?” He asked.

“For what?”

“Work dumbass, last night we agreed to carpool to save some money. I even made sure to remind you as you left last night.”

Before he’s finished I’ve already rushed back into my bedroom and clumsily pulled on my uniform. By the time I’m ready Paulson-Whitman has stationed himself by the front door and shouts for me to hurry. But what about the Gorgeous? It’s been silent all morning, and it wouldn’t be good to wake it up and kick it out straight away. Letting a creature like that walk the early morning streets alone would be irresponsible! Who knows what violent thugs are stalking the streets. No, it would be better for it to stay here a bit longer, I only had a short shift and would be back in a few hours. I could see how it was feeling when I got back. I quickly scribbled out a note explaining I had to leave but it was free to have any food or drink in the flat and left.

During the drive to work Paulson-Whitman asked about a book he had seen in the flat, A Treatise on Societal Insurgency by Hémel Benedek. He seemed interested in it though quite frankly I doubted he’d be intellectually capable of grasping its nuances. He was a Protector, but he certainly lacked any gift of insight and greater abstract thought. Besides, the book only had a tangential connection to Hémel’s wider work on the Protectors and Destroyers, an early book that received little attention and had little worth. I said it was a gift and we spent the rest of the car ride in silence.

The shift was mostly uneventful, until my radio crackled with news of an attack on a prisoner in Cell Block C. It happened fairly often, but recently a specific prisoner had been attacked repeatedly. For some reason beyond me the other prisoners hated her, I think even envious of her, though she hardly seemed much different to the rest of them. By the time we reached the scene she only had a broken arm and a black eye, but her attacker was sent off to solitary confinement and after a meeting it was decided the attacked prisoner would be cut off from the other prisoners for her own safety in a high security wing, a prisoner from prisoners.

As I walked back into my flat I couldn’t get the thought of this double prisoner out of my head. How did she place in Benedek’s framework of society, and my extension of his framework. Could a Gorgeous be made inside a group of Destroyers? Or maybe she is simply an exception to the rule created by the whims of individual human decision making. No theorised framework is perfect, but every exception to the rules weakens it more and more until it eventually collapses under the pressure.

My stream of thought was interrupted by the sound of shuffling in the spare room. It was still here. The thought of the prisoner attack made me worry even more about letting the Gorgeous go, I would never forgive myself if it was harmed because I failed to protect it. But what if it didn’t leave? Not yet at least. It could spend another night, just until the outside is safer for it. Though I imagined that it would hardly agree to spending another night in my flat, even though it’s for its own protection.

And then it dawned on me. Benedek conceptualises incarceration solely as a form of punishment upon the Destroyers, but what about using it as protection for the Gorgeous instead with Protectors as the guards, stopping any from getting too close. An inversion of the framework, but still applying the general principles to the situation. We already did something similar with the prisoner attacked earlier in the day, it’s hardly a large leap to apply the same logic here.

Even as I worked the thought process out I was already walking into the bathroom and grabbing some sleeping pills. Surely it would appreciate a drink, maybe some tea. With determined resolve I crushed up a couple of sleeping pills and slipped the powder in. As I approached the door the shuffling in the bedroom grew louder. I entered without knocking.

“Hiya there, up for some tea?”

Blurry-eyed, it looked up at me and took the cup of tea with no complaint, drinking it greedily. I stroked its hair while its eyes grew heavy and sank deeper into the pits of exhaustion, how weak and soft it was. As it fell asleep I kissed its forehead and left, locking the door behind me.

It’ll be safe with me.



Nova Warner

Nova Warner (she/her) works in customer service and is based somewhere in County Durham. She's previously been published in Indie Bites, Syncopation Literary Journal and From the Lighthouse. Outside of writing she enjoys photography and book collecting. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram @novawarner01. Nova recommends the East Durham Trust.


Edited for Unlikely by Jonathan Penton, Editor-in-Chief
Last revised on Wednesday, November 1, 2023 - 21:05